By Dana Milbank
Thursday, October 15, 2009
There are no shades of gray in Alan Grayson's oratory.
Two weeks ago, the previously unknown freshman congressman, a Florida Democrat, burst onto the scene when he declared on the House floor that "if you get sick, America, the Republican health-care plan is this: Die quickly."
He followed that up with television interviews in which he called Republicans "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals" and "unscrupulous." He went to the Florida Democratic convention and told the crowd that the GOP should change its name to the "The Selfish Party."
Republicans demanded he make an apology, and he gave one -- to those who died because they lacked health insurance. "I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't voted sooner to end this holocaust in America," he announced on the House floor.
On Wednesday, Grayson turned on one of his own: the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (Nev.). Grayson gave a speech outside the Hart Senate Office Building, where Reid keeps an office, detailing the grievances that led him to start a petition drive against the Democratic leader.
"We the undersigned believe the time has come for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to get on with it," the petition says. "For the last six months, Democrats have been dwelling, debating and hoping for Republican Olympia Snowe to vote for health care reform. Why? Olympia Snowe was not elected president. . . . We stand with Alan Grayson and implore: What are we waiting for?"
Three weeks ago, the name Alan Grayson would have drawn a blank, even among many who follow Congress closely. But in the past fortnight, Congressman Die Quickly has become a cult hero on the left. "I have to admit I only heard of him when he stood up and said what he did," said Don Deppeller, a member of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which organized the petition event with Grayson. "We just need more of him and more of that. He's got some heroic qualities."
After the initial die-quickly speech, political handicappers speculated that the outburst could doom Grayson in his Republican-leaning district in the Orlando area. But just the opposite has happened: As Grayson's national stature has soared, opponent after opponent has dropped plans to challenge him in next year's midterm elections. His chief of staff, who shares her boss's linguistic gifts, said would-be opponents feared they'd be "gutted like a fish."
The response has been, in some ways, a mirror image of that enjoyed by Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who shouted "You lie" at President Obama on the House floor; Wilson's fundraising mushroomed as he became an icon on the right, and he's now a national spokesman for the GOP.
Grayson, in typical form, says there's no comparison between the two. "What I did was like a Bob Dylan song, and what he did was like a belch," he has said in more than one cable news interview. But the twin triumphs of Wilson and Grayson establish a perverse incentive for lawmakers in both parties: The best offense, it appears, is to offend.
The Senate majority leader is not pleased with this strategy. "The only thing Senator Reid is worried about right now is putting together a bill that can get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. "He has no intention of stopping by" to receive the petition.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is equally wary of Grayson. "Let's not go through that," the California Democrat pleaded when asked at a news conference about various Grayson remarks.
Grayson may ultimately pay for antagonizing party leaders, but the man is no dummy. He's a Harvard-educated former trial lawyer who has a gift for turning a phrase. "If the president has a BLT sandwich tomorrow," he has been known to say, "the Republicans are going to try to ban bacon."
The petition began last week when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow announced that "two major power brokers on the left" were pushing for Democrats to be stripped of their leadership positions if they sided with Republican efforts to block health-care reform. It's not clear who Maddow was referring to, but Grayson and the Progressive Change group, inspired by the idea, began separate petition drives. They merged their efforts (87,000 online signatures for Progressive Change and about 3,000 for Grayson) outside the Hart building on Wednesday.
Adam Green, from Progressive Change, told a small media gathering that included a CNN camera that it would be "unacceptable" for Democrats to side with Republicans against a health-care bill. A doctor, Nilesh Kalyanaraman, announced that "my patients' lives and health depend on Harry Reid standing up and showing the leadership we expect."
Next came Grayson, tall and a bit wild, with scuffed cowboy boots under his pinstriped suit and chest hair poking out over his tie and collar. He pulled from his breast pocket a study showing that nearly 45,000 Americans die each year because they don't have health insurance. "As we stand here right now," he said, "one or two or three Americans have died because we have not acted yet."
He continued: "A week ago, I apologized to the dead and their families for our inaction. Now it's time to move beyond that and get the job done."
With that, Grayson walked toward the Hart building. Reporters followed. What, he was asked, would he have Reid do differently? The congressman offered no prescription, only a demand: "One way or another, the bill has to pass. It's that simple. As quickly as possible."